Listening to pianist Mack McCray play Franz Liszt’s “reminiscences” fantasia on themes from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma this past Monday night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music turned out to be useful preparation for attending the opera itself last night at the War Memorial Auditorium. Liszt’s thematic survey, along with Bellini’s own overture, not only covers a generous share of the musical ground of the opera but also alerts the listener to the basic premise that music is not the top priority in bel canto. As the name implies, this is a style in which almost all value resides in a few performers summoning up their most beautiful vocal sonorities (bel canto), usually to the exclusion of attaching very much significance to matters of logic, structure, and rhetoric that arise in either the music or the narrative of the libretto.
As in many bel canto operas, those “few performers” in the current San Francisco Opera (SFO) production, staged by Kevin Newbury, are a soprano (Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role), a mezzo (Jamie Barton as Adalgisa, in the complicated situation of both friend and rival), and a tenor (Russell Thomas as the Roman soldier Pollione). Each of these individuals brought some very impressive chops to the stage of the War Memorial Opera House, even if their most polished sonorities tended to involve disregard for any other minor considerations, such as pitch and rhythm. Indeed, it is hard to fault Radvanovsky and Barton, particularly when they joined forces in some of the most high-wire displays of duo skills. Nevertheless, anyone proud of his/her listening skills will still admit that none of that work can hold a candle to “Che soave zefiretto.”
As a result the real hero of the current SFO production would have to be conductor Nicola Luisotti. Luisotti always has an impressive command from the podium to insure alignment between what is happening on stage and what is happening in the pit. However, in this production he is thoroughly realistic about who is in charge when. When those “beautiful voices” chose to linger over a tone or wrap themselves sinuously around an embellishment, Luisotti was always there to keep his ensemble in check, allowing the moment to linger for as long as made the vocalist happy. If pitch would occasionally wander, he seemed to have a knack for restoring useful reference points.
Indeed, when none of those three performers were on stage, Luisotti still had some skill left over to tease musical value out of Bellini’s score. His control of dynamic levels during the overture even made a case that Bellini’s musical judgment did not always take second place to vocal display; and Luisotti’s balance of instrumental resources suggested that Bellini knew a thing or two about sonorities that were not lodged in the vocal tract. In a similar vein credit should be given to both Newbury and Set Designer David Korins for doing more to establish both context and narrative flow than could ever be teased out of Felice Romani’s libretto for the opera.
The evening may have been about three impressive vocalists; but the combined forces of Luisotti, Newbury, and Korins provided a secure platform on which those singers could strut their collective stuff.